[Marxism] Class Dismissed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 26 07:24:35 MDT 2011


'Class Dismissed'
July 26, 2011

It's no secret that this country has an education problem. Whether 
pre-K or post-grad, the consensus is clear: we need more and 
better education. Too few students make it through high school, 
fewer still make it through college, and in any case they are not 
learning enough, or they are not learning the right things in the 
right way. The child left behind in school will never make it to 
college, and the child who doesn't make it to college becomes the 
adult who will never attain a reasonably well-paying job. 
Education, then, is the key to prosperity -- for individual 
workers and for the nation that comprises them.

But wait.

Is it possible that this ubiquitous narrative results from a sort 
of tunnel vision? That education isn't the best solution to 
poverty or economic inequality -- that it may not even be a 
solution at all?

Those are the questions that John Marsh asks -- and answers -- in 
his new book, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our 
Way Out of Inequality (Monthly Review Press). Marsh, an assistant 
professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, makes the 
case that Americans have come to imbue education with a level of 
significance that the facts do not and cannot support.

Poverty and inequality, Marsh argues, are dire problems for all of 
us -- even those who've never known financial hardship and 
probably never will. But education cannot make them go away: it is 
simply not possible for all Americans to earn college degrees, and 
"[i]nsisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a 
particularly humane solution." And if all Americans did graduate 
from college, then college would no longer be any guarantee of a 
good job and a decent living (or rather, it would be even less of 
one than it is now).

In Marsh's view, then, if we actually want to improve the standard 
of living for all Americans, and perhaps decrease a little the 
tremendous and ever-growing disparity between those with the least 
and those with the most, we must turn our focus away from 
education and toward more effective solutions, such as, in his 
opinion, stronger labor unions and a more progressive tax 
structure. Such a strategy shift, however, is unlikely ever to 
take place, Marsh says -- Americans are too invested in the idea 
of a meritocracy in which those who work hard and get a good 
education will always be able to make it in life.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Marsh by e-mail to discuss the themes 
of his book.

Q: What is the Odyssey Project, and how did it serve as the 
inspiration for this book?

A: The Odyssey Project is a free, college-accredited course in the 
humanities offered to low-income adults. Programs like it have 
existed for awhile, including a long-running, inspiring class run 
by the Illinois Humanities Council on the south side of Chicago. 
In the fall of 2005, I began to organize a course in 
Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Humanities faculty from nearby 
universities — in our case, the University of Illinois at 
Urbana-Champaign — offer night classes in their areas of expertise 
(literature, philosophy, art history, U.S. history, and writing) 
for anyone between the ages of 18 and 45 and living at 150 percent 
of the poverty level of income or less. Students who complete the 
nine-month course receive six hours of college credit, which they 
can then transfer to other institutions of higher learning. Thanks 
to grants from the Illinois Humanities Council and the University 
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, everything is free: tuition, 
books, even child care. The goal, beyond introducing students to 
the study of the humanities, is to build a bridge to higher 
education for those who have never gone to college or who dropped out.

It is an admirable program. By the second year of the course, 
though, I began to have some doubts. Not about whether the program 
should exist or not — on balance, it does considerably more good 
than harm — but about the gap between what the course could 
accomplish and the occasionally unchecked faith people had in it. 
In any given year, for example, more students would drop out of 
the class than finish it. I would never hear from them again, and 
I could not stop thinking about them. If education failed them, or 
they failed in their educations, that was it. Besides education, 
economic life in the United States in the 21st century offers few 
viable ways to get ahead. I also began to worry that the program 
rested on a comforting but dangerous half-truth about the 
educational causes of and cure for poverty. At the time, too, 
economists were rediscovering just how unequal, whether in terms 
of income or wealth, the United States had grown over the last few 
decades. (By a considerable margin, the United States is the most 
unequal of all developed countries and growing more unequal more 
quickly than most other countries.)

In the beginning, then, I simply needed to learn more about what I 
was doing as the director of this program, about the relationship 
between education and economics. What I learned — and what I 
wanted to convey in the book — is the unsettling truth that if 
people truly care about lessening poverty and economic inequality, 
they should forget about education.

Q: “Many people,” you write, “mostly but not all conservatives, 
argue that as a nation we worry too much about poverty and 
inequality….” Leaving aside questions of social justice and 
empathy (which might take us into some rather tall philosophical 
weeds), why should we, collectively and individually, care about 
poverty and inequality?

A: Social justice and empathy — those are two pretty powerful 
motivations to leave aside! But so be it. How about a motivation 
to care about poverty and inequality that people may not expect, 
say, self-interest? According to the sociologist Mark Rank, by the 
time they reach age 75, a majority of Americans — 58.5 percent — 
will have been officially poor at least once. So Americans should 
care about poverty because in all likelihood they — or someone 
close to them — will someday be poor. It would benefit them to 
adopt policies now that would lessen their likelihood of falling 
into poverty or make their stay in it less perilous.

Regarding inequality, I would point to the findings of Richard 
Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who have shown that people who live in 
more equal countries live demonstrably better lives than those who 
live in less equal countries. In more equal countries, people — 
rich and poor alike — live longer, trust each other more, 
discriminate against women less, devote more resources to foreign 
aid, have fewer bouts of mental illness, use fewer drugs, murder 
each other less, have lower rates of infant mortality, suffer less 
from obesity, are more literate and numerate, complete more years 
of schooling, imprison fewer people, and enjoy greater social 
mobility. People in more equal countries even have fewer 
fistfights than people in less equal countries. As an English 
professor, I enjoy a good fistfight as much as the next person, 
but I think we could safely get by with fewer of them.

Very quickly, too — some economists believe that if inequality 
rises too much, or if the wages of ordinary workers stall for too 
long, this may jeopardize the overall economy. As the Great 
Recession has mercilessly demonstrated, when the economy melts 
down, ordinary people suffer the most.

Q: Why do you believe that “increasing the number of college 
graduates” — as the president and many other significant people 
and organizations aim to do — is unlikely to “have much of an 
impact on the number of people living in poverty or on … economic 
inequality?” Are there reasons to increase the number of college 
graduates anyway?

A: Education can help some people escape poverty and low incomes, 
but that road will very quickly get bottlenecked. Although 
economists and scholars debate it, it is not clear that the United 
States needs or will need many more college graduates than it 
already generates. Of course, other countries have higher college 
graduation rates than the United States, and those countries find 
something for their college graduates to do. So there could be 
some unmet demand for college graduates, but not enough for all or 
even a substantial number of the poor to move into the 
professions. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. economy will 
continue to produce many jobs — a majority, in fact — that do not 
require college degrees. In general, those jobs pay low wages, and 
an education will not make them pay any more than they do. 
Moreover, if you sit down and do the math, the U.S. economy has 
never produced anywhere close to the number of jobs — let alone 
decent-paying jobs — it would take to move the non-working poor 
into the ranks of the gainfully employed. Poverty and economic 
inequality are about the distribution of resources — jobs and 
income. Education plays a role in where people end up on the 
ladder of incomes, but it cannot much change the distance between 
rungs on the ladder.

That said, there are more compelling versions of the argument for 
education and how it might reduce economic inequality. I am 
thinking in particular of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz’s 
The Race between Education and Technology, which holds that 
inequality has increased because the supply of college graduates 
has leveled off while the demand for college graduates has, as it 
always does, steadily increased. Even this thesis, though, has its 
problems. For example, economic inequality has increased in the 
United States because more income now flows to the top 1 percent 
of earners than it has since the period before the Great 
Depression. That has little or nothing to do with the number of 
workers with or without college degrees.

As for whether there are other reasons to increase the number of 
college graduates, there are many. To take only the most romantic 
and impractical, I started the Odyssey Project at least in part 
because I love literature, and I believe that in some intangible 
but nevertheless crucial way, the study of literature can enrich 
people’s lives. To the extent that college makes that possible, so 
much the better. But when I think about the problems the country 
faces today, the number of college graduates does not rise very 
far toward the top of the list.

Q: You argue that “decreasing inequality and poverty” may be the 
best way to improve educational outcomes, given the present, 
yawning socioeconomic achievement gap; you mention, too, that the 
economically disadvantaged (among the student population as well 
as more broadly) are disproportionately likely to be people of 
color. What your book doesn’t touch is the racial and ethnic 
achievement gap that exists independently of economic disparities. 
How do you think that gap should be addressed — and were your 
views on it affected by your research for the book?

A: As you note, a good deal of the racial and ethnic achievement 
gap disappears when you factor out class, but not all of it. And I 
confess to having no more insight into why that should be the case 
than many scholars who study the question, who have plausible 
theories but little by way of definite conclusions. It remains a 
mystery and a challenge to our ideals.

Still, I think my research for the book led me to view this gap as 
perhaps part of a much larger, more pressing problem. Assume for a 
moment that you could erase the racial and ethnic achievement gap. 
Presumably, more racial and ethnic minorities would then earn 
college degrees. Still, without changing the underlying economy, 
nothing guarantees that there would be any fewer poor people than 
before, or that incomes would be any differently distributed than 
before. To be sure, it would be nice if African Americans, for 
example, made up the same percentage of poor people as they do of 
the general population. (As it stands now, they are very much 
overrepresented among the ranks of the poor.) But social justice 
should mean more than just making sure that economic insecurity is 
distributed without regard to race. I would rather we just reduce 
economic insecurity across the board. Ultimately, I think that 
approach would save more people on the losing end of the 
achievement gap from lives of poverty and low incomes than a more 
narrow focus on reducing those educational disparities.

Q: How did Americans come to see educational attainment as the key 
to prosperity? And why — particularly given the research your book 
presents — do they continue to do so?

A: They did so because, in the last few decades anyway, it is true 
— educational attainment is the key to prosperity. I argue merely 
that it did not use to be the case, and there is no reason why it 
should be the case today.

Of course there is a more complicated answer to the question; 
namely, that other paths to economic prosperity — unions, for 
example, or tight labor markets — were gradually and, perhaps, 
deliberately taken away from people over the course of the 20th 
century. I offer a more detailed history in the book, but in 
general this is a post-Second World War phenomenon. As educational 
opportunities increased — think of programs like Head Start or 
Stafford Loans or Pell Grants — labor market institutions like 
unions came under attack.

In addition, I think there is something psychologically satisfying 
about imagining educational attainment as the key to prosperity. 
According to polls, Americans want a more economically equal 
country. They do not, however, want the government to directly 
engineer this greater equality. So that leaves education. By 
providing equal educational opportunity, good schools — the 
thinking goes — can combat poverty and economic inequality. People 
mean well, but they have chosen the wrong tool for the job, like 
trying to sweep your kitchen floor with a shovel. You will make 
some progress, but there are other, better tools for what you want 
to get done.

Q: “Short a socialist revolution in tax policy,” you argue that a 
resurgence of organized labor would be the most realistic and 
effective way to combat income inequality. What would be needed to 
make this happen — and is there any chance that it actually will?

A: I should say that in the book I do not actually call for a 
socialist revolution in tax policy. The tax structure could 
doubtless be more just. But my point is that if it really wanted 
to, the United States could reduce inequality tomorrow, in any 
number of ways, regardless of how many people did or did not 
graduate from college. As I say above, we have other 
income-leveling tools at our disposal. That we choose not to use 
them does not mean they would not work.

But, yes, unions. Their decline correlates with the increase in 
economic inequality over the last 40 years, and I would bet my 
diminished TIAA-CREF portfolio that their resurgence would reverse 
that trend. I can so blithely risk my retirement account because I 
am convinced that unions would increase economic equality, but 
also because in all likelihood I will never get to make that bet. 
In the book, I discuss the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act, a 
piece of federal legislation that would make it easier for workers 
to join unions and negotiate a first contract. For just that 
reason, the bill attracted an incredible amount of well-funded 
hostility from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 
Perhaps if the Democrats could again take the House and achieve a 
filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, EFCA might have a chance. 
But short of that, employers simply have too many tools at their 
disposal — and labor law leans too far in their direction — for 
workers to form unions as easily as they once did and at the rates 
they would need to in order to reverse their decline.

Q: Given that the “solution to economic inequality” is not to be 
found in education, you write that “we should seek to make 
education more of an end in itself and less of a means toward… 
opportunity, economic security, or national prosperity.” What 
would doing so entail? How would it change schools and universities?

A: We need schools. They are — or can be — very good at teaching 
people what they need to know, and very good at training people to 
do what we need them to do. I am grateful that my veterinarian 
studied biomedical sciences. I am also grateful that she got the 
chance to read literature, study history, debate ethics, learn how 
to write, look at paintings and practice all the other liberal 
arts. She is probably a better person — and citizen and 
veterinarian — because of it.

What schools are not very good at, however, is equalizing economic 
opportunities or outcomes. They can do a little of this, but not 
as much as we would hope or like. (Christopher Jencks and his 
co-authors made this point 40 years ago.) So, as a thought 
experiment, I ask, what if schools did not have the burden of 
generating economic opportunity or equality? If we found other, 
more direct ways to accomplish that, what would schools do instead?

Some people will answer this question differently than others. One 
reviewer of the book seems to think that schools are inherently 
repressive and we should abolish them altogether. I like schools 
and learning too much to go along with that. Nevertheless, I think 
schools could devote themselves to other, more important tasks 
than they do now. At the primary and secondary levels, we might 
see less emphasis on testing. Testing has its purposes, but it has 
taken over curriculums at many schools because reformers want to 
make sure that schools are leaving no child behind, mostly because 
the consequences of being left behind are so grave. If they were 
less grave, or if reformers recognized that schools can only do so 
much to alter students’ prospects, schools could, for example, 
return to what they were originally supposed to do: educating 
young people to be capable citizens in a democracy. Or you could 
simply value learning for its own sake. And, of course, schools 
still need to prepare students for their life after school, 
whether that means college or the work force.

At the college level, I like to imagine that a turn away from the 
economic consequences of education would counteract the 
vocationalism that has lately taken over higher learning, though I 
am sure that professors like me have always complained about 
vocationalism — and, come to think of it, vocationalism, as 
training for the professions, is a crucial function of higher 
education. Even so, the era of greatest economic equality and 
security in the United States, roughly 1947 to 1973, also saw a 
resurgence of interest in the liberal arts. Many factors explain 
that, but in the context of greater economic security, students 
seem to have cared about money less and ideas more. I would like 
to see it happen again.

To be honest, though, as I write in the book, for the moment I 
care less about educational outcomes than I do about economic ones.

— Serena Golden

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